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FROM AN ERA GONE BY: DIRTY DEEDS IN THE SURF

To some readers, especially those born too late to experience surf fishing before the mid 80s, some of the actions mentioned in this article might seem extreme, and even repulsive.

By Joe Sapienza  |  December 17, 2019
FROM AN ERA GONE BY: DIRTY DEEDS IN THE SURF
Some casters went to great lengths to keep their success a secret in order to avoid drawing a crowd.

There was a time when many of us sold all, or most of what we caught. Not so much for profit, but to be able to cover the expenses for the sport we love. During those years, haul seiners and gill netters were shipping large hauls of bass, so the fish that we caught seemed like a drop in the bucket at the time. In 1971, my firefighter salary was $250 a week gross. One 25-pound fish at $1 a pound was the equivalent to half a day’s wages. And, on some nights we caught plenty.

The following paragraphs are just a sample of the dirty deeds we did back then, to keep what we were doing secret. Any true beach rat knew the rules and played by them. If you didn’t you were not hungry enough. Fish from sunset to sunrise for a fish and see if you are willing to share the information with someone who is lying home in a warm bed waiting for a call.

JETTY TRICKS

Sometimes you can find fish without ever actually fishing. Sound confusing? Read on. After 40 years of fishing I have learned a few tricks of the trade. Much of it came from experience and some from the dirty deeds of others. How do you find fish without fishing you ask? Observe everyone and everything.

One example that comes to mind was practiced at the Breezy Point Jetty many years ago. Imagine trying to carry a big striper off those stones without a rope stringer - very difficult to say the least.

All we had to do to know whether someone was catching fish was to see if the angler had a rope stringer on his belt or not. If there was no stringer present, then he probably had a fish hidden in the rocks. Once we learned that this was a sure giveaway, everyone in our crew began carrying two rope stringers. One was kept on your belt in full view as a decoy, while the other was actually used to hold fish.

Another was to attach a lure that would have no chance of catching a fish in the area we were fishing or under the conditions we were fishing, when leaving the jetty. I would always add an Ava 27 diamond jig with a green tube to my rod as I walked off. If anyone asked, my reply was “they jumped all over the green tube.” While the jigs did work in the daytime, they were pretty much useless at night.

Another little trick was to hang the fish with the rope stringer over your back, secure the rope around your waist so both hands were free and then put your Helly Hansen rain top over it. It was surprisingly easy to walk right past someone on a dark night and never get caught even thought the fish’s tail was hanging down below your jacket. We even went so far as to use green foul weather tops so that the fish would be less noticeable. Yellow was definitely out.

Never drag a fish on the rocks if possible. I used to love it when I arrived at the jetty and saw blood and scales as big as quarters on the rocks. It was pretty obvious that there had been a good bite on before I arrived.

NOISE, LIGHTS AND TRACKS

Being quiet and keeping your mouth shut goes without saying. We even went so far as to remove the drag clicker from our spinning reel spool. If other casters were nearby when we hooked up, we would minimize our movements. I have had friends land 30-pound bass ten yards from me and I never knew it. Keep the necklight off and do not kneel down at the waters edge to remove a plug. That’s a sure giveaway to any experienced caster that you are unhooking a fish. Slowly walk back to your vehicle and remove it there. I remember one night when Fisherman editor Fred Golofaro came off the beach and walked behind my vehicle going to his. Only when I tapped the brake light and looked in my mirror did I notice the 40 pounder he was trying to sneak back to his truck.

Most experienced anglers would only stay at a location a very short time. They would make 15 casts and move. The beach was too large to hedge all your bets by staying in one place. Observe boot tracks going to and from the vehicle of other anglers. If there are many footprints, then there must be a reason he is going back and forth to his vehicle so many times. Could be he was putting fish into his cooler or rebaiting with a new eel.

Drag marks were a dead giveaway and a sure clue that fish were being caught. We were always very careful to remove any drag marks, and whenever possible carried fish back to the truck over our shoulder. If you didn’t, there was a good chance that sooner of later, you would be fishing in a crowd.

Ever feel the need to brag a little? “Hey, I had a nice fish last night.” Guess what the next question will be? Where! Now what do you do? Do you lie and send your friend on a wild goose chase? Not a nice thing to do especially when your friend sees you at a spot other than the one you told him. He just became an ex-friend. Easier to keep your mouth shut unless you want his company and all his friends as well.

One night at Fire Island Inlet I had the good fortune of catching a high 30 after fishing the spot for 3 solid nights. I told my friend Mike Campanelli about it and he said he might come down for first light and make a few casts before work. The next night I get there at around 3 a.m. and cast for a solid 3 hours without a bump. Mike comes down, takes two casts, catches a 44 and goes home. Was that my fish? You bet it was.

DETECTIVE WORK

As an example of the lengths we went to find fish, as soon as we arrived on the Cape we would go to the P-Town fish house and see what was lying in the boxes. If there were plenty of bass we knew the bite was on. My friend Paulie Hoercher would actually pull fish out of the boxes to examine them for gaff marks or sand. One morning he found one with sand on it and an eel stuck down its throat and checked the angler’s name. Bass on the beach and they are taking eels, and we also knew who to shadow that night. It certainly wasn’t rocket science.

Before the invention of cell phones, all we had to communicate with were CB radios. But to hear the radio one had to be near the vehicle and everyone near the vehicle heard it as well. Sometimes it was better to team up and pool your resources with another angler. Sometimes Paulie would ask if I wanted to pool our fish and split the money or did I want to keep my own? That was a no-brainier as Paulie could catch bass in a school yard. With an arrangement like that we worked together because now everything was an even split and the more lines in the water the better. If I had chosen to keep my own fish, Paulie would never have turned me on to a bite nor would I him.

One night Paulie and I were going to leapfrog each other as we worked the beach hitting all the points until we found the fish. By doing so we could cover twice as much beach. Before we leave for the beach I see him behind his truck changing the tail light bulb. “Hey what’s up with the bulb out?” I ask as he takes the backup light bulbs from his vehicle and puts a small dot of red nail polish on the bulb. Now he starts to do my Bronco as well. “Do not put your vehicle into reverse unless you are into fish and try to make sure the rear of your vehicle is facing me. I will do the same.”

Later that night I was fishing a point with a few other anglers and as I looked down the beach into the darkness I see a vehicle way in the distance go into reverse, but this vehicle’s lights had a pink tint to it. I quietly got into my truck and moved down to Paulie who already had one in the box and another one on as I arrived. I think we took 6 fish at that one point and never got caught. And these were all 20s and 30s - not schoolies.

MORE DIRTY DEEDS

I remember one night in a lineup at False Bar this one guy to our left kept fouling up with everyone. It seems he just let his plug swing way too far to the right. After awhile he really got to be a pain. After fouling the guy next to me for the fourth time, the guy tells me “I fixed him - I opened his snap.” Sure as heck, a few casts later his plug is gone. A very dirty deed!

When I was a young Turk I thought I knew it all. I saw this old timer take out a club and whack this bass he had just caught and toss it into his cooler. Of course, me with all of three years experience fishing knew everything about striper fishing and had to goof on him a little. His annoyed reply was “Son one day you will learn.” He also called me a name other than son.

The next year I had just landed a big bass and placed it into my front mounted cooler. A short time later a few friends pull up and ask me “Is anything happening?” “No it’s been dead” was my reply. Suddenly the cooler started bouncing around. I now had plenty of unwanted company. That old timer’s words suddenly made sense to me. “One day you will learn,” and I did. The hard way.

Many times fish were buried in the sand and your vehicle was driven over it to hide it. I always looked under a vehicle for a buried fish that might still be moving.

Another was to have numerous rods in your rod holder already with plugs on them ready to go. If you knew that the fish were hitting Atom 40s, we would have another rod all rigged up and ready to go with an Atom 40. When we landed a fish and brought him back to the truck, we would not even unhook it because it wasted valuable time. We’d just leave it in the sand, grab the other rod, and quickly get back in the water before the fish moved off.

One night at Chatham Inlet it seemed that the fish wanted 7-inch hot pink Rebels. I have no idea what in the ocean is hot pink, but we guessed squid was the bait of the moment. I decided to drive all the way back to Chatham to purchase some hot pink spray paint. At the hardware store I was told that another angler had just bought every can of hot pink spray paint in stock, effectively shutting out anyone else with the same idea. Rumor has it that when he left the Cape he returned the unused cans for a refund. Now that’s dog eat dog and underhanded. I’m sorry I got there too late or I could have done the same thing. Brilliant!

Editor’s Note: To some readers, especially those born too late to experience surf fishing before the mid 80s, some of the actions mentioned in this article might seem extreme, and even repulsive. But for many of those who plied the beaches of the Striper Coast in those earlier years, fishing for stripers was highly competitive and very profitable for those more adept at the striper game. Catch and release was practiced by very few anglers during that period, a far cry from the present time, with the majority of surfcasters practicing catch and release to at least some degree. It was widely thought by most anglers that striper stocks were not threatened, there were no bag limits, and the size limit was 16 inches.